Author Archives: pine717

Hidden Gem Recommendations for the 2020 Steam Summer Sale

In these deeply uncertain times, one thing you can always count on is Steam’s seasonal sales.  Steam’s Summer Sale is ongoing now through 10:00 am PST on July 9th.  I always enjoy the Steam sale as it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of some of the exceptionally low prices to  take a risk on games I’m curious about but not entirely certain I’ll enjoy.  As such, each year during this time I’ve made it a tradition to recommend lesser known “hidden gems” that go on sale for under $5.  If these deals aren’t enough then previous years recommendations are, of course, still valid.

2014 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2016 Recommendations

2017 Recommendations

2018 Recommendations

Nex Machina

$4.99

Nex Machina is a top down twin stick shooter from Housemarque, a group that is known for its arcade-style action games.  In this game, the player fights an unrelenting horde of rogue machinery amidst a world streaked by the neon chaos of explosions, laser blasts, and voxelated destruction.  As an arcade-style game, it’s relatively short, choosing to focus on high score and replayability, and some people may be turned off by the lack of a save feature, meaning that if the player quits their session, they must start over from the very beginning.  This is a great game for people looking for fast-paced action and non-stop sensory overload without the trappings of more story-oriented action games.

Little Nightmares

$4.99

I’ve written about Little Nightmares before, and it’s now available at a great price.  As a “nightmare” puzzle-platformer game, it’s impossible to not compare this title to the likes of Limbo and Inside.  In Little Nightmares, a mysterious child navigates a dementedly distorted world using their wits to evade the grotesque monsters that hunt her at every step.  Little Nightmares is a great game for players who enjoy puzzle-platformers with a focus on aesthetics and cryptic world building.

Gato Roboto

$3.99

Gato Roboto is a fairly recent release in the “Metroidvania” genre.  After surviving an emergency crash landing while on patrol in space, a simple house (space?) cat dons high-tech power armor to explore a hostile abandoned installation to find help for its human companion.  Perhaps the most striking aspect of the game is its stark monochrome visual presentation which can be a “like it or hate it” kind of thing.  In-game collectibles can be found to unlock new color palettes, but they are all composed of simple 2-color variations.  While the game has many elements of a Metroid-style adventure, it can be very linear in progression, so those that enjoy the sequence breaking and exploration focus of those games may need to look elsewhere.  Gato Roboto is a good choice for players who like sidescrollers that are equal parts action and platforming.  The heartfelt and goofy journey of this cat who becomes an unlikely mech pilot to save its human will also resonate with pet owners who love their companions.

1001 Spikes

$4.94

I wrote about this game a long, long time ago when I played it on the 3DS, and while I think it is one of the best sidescrolling platformers I’ve played in the past 10 years, it’s also a game that is highly divisive.  1001 Spikes follows Aban Hawkins as he explores dangerous, trap-laden ancient ruins in search of a long lost treasure.  This game is hard, with as much emphasis as I can put on the word, and borderline unfair.  It’s the “borderline unfair” part that makes the game so polarizing.  Traps in the game are hidden incredibly well with only subtle hints to their existence (if any), often leaving the player with a frantically tight window of time to react when triggered.  As such, it can often be viewed as a trial and error ordeal.  The gimmick, though, is that the player starts the game with 1001 lives to complete the challenging quest, and after they run out, there is a reasonably generous continue system that only incurs a small penalty to progress.  1001 Spikes is a game for people who like super challenging platformers like Super Meat Boy and Celeste and have the patience and tenacity to stick with it.

Vanquish

$4.99

I try to keep this list to lesser known games, but that’s based on my personal perception, which is not always the best gage.  With that in mind, Vanquish may be the most well-known game on this list as a product of the acclaimed director Shinji Mikami and Platinum Studios (of Bayonetta fame).  Vanquish feels like Mikami’s attempt to do a cover-based shooter in the vein of Gears of War.  Gears of War, of course, was heavily influenced by Mikami’s Resident Evil 4, so this is a snake eating its own tail situation.  Vanquish involves the ultra-American protagonist Sam Gideon ona mission to reclaim an American orbital city colony (an O’Neill cylinder to be exact) from Russian androids.  What sets Vanquish apart from other third person shooters is that Gideon has an extraordinary amount of mobility due to his ability to rocket slide around the combat zone.  While the game has plenty of chest high walls to hide behind, Vanquish’s enemy encounters are designed in such a way that Gideon can’t stay in one place for too long, meaning he has to constantly rocket boost from point-to-point to evade enemy fire.  The result is a more kinetic action game than was typical for games of that era.  I recommend Vanquish to all players who enjoy big, bombastic action shooters.

Night Trap

$2.99

Another game that I’ve covered for Halloween, Night Trap is the legendary interactive movie from the Sega CD that heavily contributed to the creation of the ESRB in the US.  Night Trap tells the story of a group of high school girls that have been lured to the trap-infested Martin house to be captured and fed to pseudo-vampiric entities known as augurs.  The player is an agent of an outside security force that has hacked into the traps of the house and intends to turn them against the augurs.  The player must cycle through video feeds of the house party, keeping an eye out for signs that an augur is preparing to strike and triggering the appropriate traps when necessary.  In hindsight, the moral panic that surrounded this game was laughable due to how utterly tame the “violent” content actually is.  Night Trap is goofy and cheesy, and I’ve found it to be fun while it lasts (which is really not very long).  The brevity of the title will turn many people off, but I think this game is an interesting artifact of gaming history, worth it for those who are fascinated with the culture of gaming that existed in the ‘90s.

Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara

$4.94

Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a compilation of two arcade beat’em up classics, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara.  These games are mostly notable for their relative depth when compared to other arcade beat’em ups of the time, featuring RPG mechanics, branching paths, and equipment and spell mechanics that set them apart from their contemporaries.  For fans of the arcade originals, there are a fair few extra goodies to unlock.  I recommend this compilation to anyone into ‘90s beat’em ups.

Serious Sam Double D XXL

$1.99

The Serious Sam series has had a few smaller spin offs made by indie creators in partnership with CroTeam, and Double D XXL is an enhanced version of the first of these spin offs to be released.  The game reframes the Serious Sam formula as a 2D sidescroller similar to Contra.  Serious Sam games are all about fighting off giant swarms of alien enemies that are advancing from all directions, which doesn’t necessarily translate perfectly when a dimension is stripped out, but Double D makes up for it with some of its own ideas.  The most notable is their gun stacking system, that allows Sam to combo weapons together to equip as many at one time as the player wants.  Serious Sam is a series known for its strange enemy design, but Double D XXL somehow manages to out weird the mainline entries in this respect.  Mutant stacks of pancakes that blast vuvuzelas are seemingly too bizarre for even CroTeam’s main team to touch.  I recommend Double D to players who are into tough, dumb, action games.

Games and Stuff From 2019

I have always enjoyed posting on my blog, but life over the past two years has really put a squeeze on my writing hobby.  My output in 2019 was particularly poor with the only bright spot being that I managed to keep my Halloween writing tradition going with three posts with which I’m reasonably pleased.  Changes in both my personal and professional life have incurred new taxes on my free time that mean I have less of it to devote to gaming and in turn both less inspiration and time to write.

While I can’t deny that I’m somewhat mournful of this new challenge to my hobbies, the changes I’ve faced in life over the past couple of years have ultimately been for the better, and I’m thankful for that.  Going forward, I hope I can find a way to use my free time more efficiently and reinvigorate this blog as a hobby. With all of that out of the way, I have put together this long rambling post, where I talk in an abbreviated fashion about all the games and gaming stuff that became personal highlights of 2019.

Sega Genesis Mini

I picked up one of these around its launch a few months ago, and it’s been a ton of fun.  A major function of games for me right now is to serve as a means of blowing off steam, and Genesis games are great at that purpose.  During its heyday, Sega was really all about bringing the arcade experience into the home, and as a result, Genesis games often have a “pick up and play” quality that makes it easy to jump in for some action that can be as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour.  I own a few of the other classic consoles, and this is by far the one I’ve invested the most time in for that reason. I also plucked down the money for the wireless controller from 8bitdo, and it has been an excellent controller so far, well worth the money. (I have another 8bitdo controller that I use with my tablet, and it is also excellent.  They make great stuff from my experience.) Hopefully, I will be able to write more about this machine in the future.

Super Mario Maker 

This game also follows the theme of using gaming to blow off steam.  I really enjoyed Super Mario Maker on the Wii U, and the sequel simply carries that game over to the Switch while adding some excellent new bells and whistles.  While I’ve really enjoyed making levels on the Wii U, I haven’t really gotten around yet to making my own levels on Switch. I feel that the lack of an in-built stylus in the Switch makes level designing less approachable than on Wii U.  I’ve really just been downloading levels to play when I have some spare time here and there. I haven’t picked up the game up for a little while now, but the arrival of playable Link complete with his own special abilities makes me want to go back.

Super Mario Maker 2.jpg

Resident Evil 2

I’ve already written about this game for Halloween, but I just wanted to reiterate that it was probably the highlight of 2019 for me.

Assorted 3DS Games

Most people have probably completely moved to Switch, but I’m still clinging to my 3DS.  I’m having a really hard time letting go. I think it’s mostly because the 3DS is more portable than the Switch, being smaller and having a more robust clamshell design that folds up to protect the important bits, which makes it easy for me to take along to play at lunch breaks or when I’m traveling.  There’s also just a huge library of great games on the system that I haven’t managed to get around to yet, which means there’s always something new for me to play. Right now, the machine really just sort of lives in my backpack.

My go-to game for the past month or so has been Super Mario 3D Land, which is a game that I’ve beaten before, but makes for good replay due to the amount and creative variety of content.  It’s honestly a bit mind boggling to me to play this game and see how well Nintendo translated the scope of a 3D Mario game to a handheld device. Throw in the fact that this game is sort of a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 3 (my favorite Mario game), and I’ve come to realize that I’ve really underappreciated it for a long time.  For this playthrough, I challenged myself to collect all of the star coins in each level, something that I tried but never accomplished the first time I beat it. In typical Nintendo fashion, the reward for doing such an above-and-beyond feat is incredibly basic, a simple star tagged to the save file, but I’m fine with that. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ve waded into the 3DS version of the first Luigi’s Mansion.

Rage 2

I bought Rage 2 completely on a whim around the time when it came out.  All of the reviews at the time mentioned how mediocre the game was, and I have to concur.  It does mindless action very well, but enemy variety, world building, and level and mission design are just let downs and leave the experience feeling like it could have been so, so much more.  Nonetheless, I played the game all the way to completion of the story and cleaned up some of the larger optional side missions. I did enjoy what I played, and occasionally go back to do some of the open world missions that I haven’t completed when I just want to zone out to a game, because again it does mindless action very well, but it is not a game that I would put very high on my recommended list.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

This has been my go-to game lately.  Star Wars is something I’m not quite as passionate about as I was when I was a high schooler, but games like Jedi Outcast and Knights of the Old Republic remain among my favorites that I revisit every handful of years.  So far, Fallen Order is shaping up to meet the high standards of those particular titles. I’ve heard this game described as Souls-lite as it has a combat system that is very similar to Dark Souls melee combat, although not nearly as tight or graceful, in addition to other borrowed elements like a bonfire-style save and recovery system and worlds that just sort of weave in and out of themselves in a similar manner to the lands around the Firelink Shrine.

I only have two major complaints about the game.  First, the game is heavily focused on lightsaber combat with force powers as a supplement (there are no blasters that the main character can use as far as I know).  For the most part it works fairly well, but the character can feel clumsy at times. This is particularly true since so many other elements of the game scream Dark Souls, but the melee combat just isn’t as tight as what an experienced Dark Souls player might  expect. The second issue I have is the enemy variety isn’t that great. It’s mostly humanoids (usually stormtroopers) that carry various flavors of blasters or energy weapons and a handful of very basic Star Wars monsters. There’s nothing that really captures the imagination to the extent that the menagerie of grotesqueries that appears in the Dark Souls series does.

Those complaints out of the way, I still think the game is really cool.  The planets the player visits are fun to explore, and they look incredible.  If the game can keep up the momentum it has had so far, it may actually dethrone Jedi Outcast as my favorite Star Wars game.

Grindstone

This is a game I downloaded to my phone, and it’s been a good way to entertain myself when I only have access to my phone.  In general, gaming on phones has usually felt like a wasteland to me because of the soul-destroying monetization schemes that are hard to escape.  If you had told me a long time ago in a world before smartphones that people in the future would carry around computers in their pockets that were more powerful and had a faster internet connection than the computer I grew up with, my video game addled brain would have immediately started imagining all the amazing gaming possibilities that such devices would open up.  And then if you had told me that all the games on these things would suck, I think my brain would break and my faith in the future of humankind would have completely shattered.

Grindstone is, fortunately, one of the too few mobile games that is actually worthwhile.  A product of Capybara Games, who also made Critter Crunch and Sword and Sworcery, their house style is definitely on display here.  The game is sort of like a match 3 game (e.g., Bejewelled) but with no actual matching. Instead, each level is a grid of differently colored monsters, and the player takes control of a Viking warrior that occupies one of these grid spaces.  Enemies are defeated by running a line from the Viking character through consecutively adjacent monsters of the same color. The catch is that if the Viking lands on a space adjacent to an enemy that is readying an attack, the player will take damage.  Enemies that are defeated are replaced by new enemies that fall from the top of the screen. Levels are usually completed when the player defeats a certain number of enemies.  

While all of this may sound complex due to the haphazard way I’m describing it, it’s actually fairly simple once seen in action.  The game has a huge number of levels that keeps this fairly simple formula interesting by introducing new elements such as special monster types, environmental upgrades, and unlockable abilities.

This is the kind of game that I’ve personally found is best for me to play in short, disciplined bursts.  The game can be addictive in a way that reminds me of the rabbit holes that I’ve gone down in over the Picross series.  Every time I complete a level, I have this impulse to start the next one, telling myself I’ll only play “just one more”.  If I’m not careful, way too much time evaporates, and I’ve long stopped having fun and, at that point I’m really just chasing after a dopamine kick.  It’s like gorging on a bag of potato chips. That first chip is super salty and delicious, which makes you want to eat one more. Then you eat the second and third chip which are a little less tasty due to your brain becoming numb to the repetition of flavor.  But you keep eating because you’re chasing after the satisfaction that the original chip gave you. Eventually, you’ve found that you’ve eaten way too much, should have stopped a long time ago, and that momentary pleasure has given way to self-loathing originating somewhere deep inside the body.  Just like the potato chip, it’s best not to let oneself binge on these kinds of addictive games. Play a level or two here and there and then just let it go.

Wrapping Up

Last but not least, not too long ago I managed to complete my long personal quest to complete all of the games in the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy.  The third game in the series has always been my favorite, and after having a tough time with Crash 1 and 2, I was pleased to find that Crash 3 is still mostly agreeable to me.  I plan to write more very soon on both the surprises and disappointments that the Crash 3 remake delivered, as well as why it took me an incredible amount of time to actually finish.

Resident Evil 2!

I arrived at being a Resident Evil fan through a somewhat tortuous history.  Despite being a huge fan of the Playstation, I never actually played any Resident Evil games on the system, despite the series being one of the console’s best sellers.  I certainly thought Resident Evil looked cool, and I did get to mess around with Resident Evil 2 at a friend’s house, but for some complicated reasons, I never actually got a hold of those titles for myself.  The first game in the series that I actually got to spend appreciable time with was Resident Evil 4 which was a marked departure from what had been the series’ convention.  

Eventually, I would play those original Resident Evil games through the DS port of RE1 and the PS1 on PSP releases of RE2 and 3, which is to say that my first experiences with those games were through handheld versions.  And despite playing those games in their diminutive forms, I thought they were amazing, and it really solidified me as a fan of the series going forward. Resident Evil 2, in particular, left an impression on me. I still vividly remember downloading it to my PSP in college before heading home for Christmas to spend a week with my family and getting some Racoon City action in on the side.  Despite that break being a busy holiday week with lots of family stuff going on, I was so enamored with the game that I somehow managed to squeeze in enough time with it here and there to complete both the Leon and Claire campaigns. As I get older, I feel myself getting less and less excited for games long before they release, but I was super pumped a few years back when Capcom announced that Resident Evil 2 would be getting a modern remake.

Resident Evil fans will know that the series can be divided into two separate eras.  There was the original era of Resident Evil that used fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited items and ammo to produce slower, less precise, but more methodical action games.  With the advent of Resident Evil 4, the series majorly shuffled things up and pioneered the modern over-the-shoulder action game. While the series has maintained its horror theming, emphasis was put more on precise aiming, less restricted ammo, and linear level design that contrast with the more backtracking oriented earlier games.  The shift in direction for the series has been a huge point of contention for some Resident Evil fans, but I personally enjoy and find merit in both styles.

The Resident Evil 2 remake is a case study in wanting to eat your cake and still have it.  It tries to combine the limited ammo and less linear level design of the original Resident Evil 2 with the over-the-shoulder combat experience of the more modern games.  And for the most part, I think it succeeds at creating a delicate fusion of these contrasting gameplay styles. It even manages to incorporate elements of the offbeat Resident Evil 7 in a way that just clicks.

Resident Evil 2 offers two campaigns, one from the perspective of Racoon City police force newcomer Leon Kennedy and the other from the perspective of Claire Redfield, the biker sister of Resident Evil 1 protagonist Chris Redfield.  The game starts with the player’s chosen protagonist making their way into Racoon City, Leon to start his new job and Claire to find her brother who has gone missing. What awaits them when they reach the outskirts of town is a doomed city overrun with a zombie outbreak.  In a turn of fate, Claire and Leon cross paths and one of gaming’s greatest duos is born. After teaming up, Leon suggests to Claire that they make their way to the Racoon City Police HQ to figure out what’s going on and hopefully find safe refuge. Upon entering, they find the building nearly abandoned by the living, save for one dying officer who hints at a hidden escape route that could help the pair make their way to safety.  

Within the massive RCPDHQ, the player is immediately greeted with a great many locked doors and blocked pathways.  Exploration and backtracking is thus necessary to slowly open up new areas and progress in the game. RCPDHQ is essentially one big mystery that players need to work through.  Eventually, players move beyond the police department, but each subsequent area is similarly structured.

For those unfamiliar with Resident Evil 2, the game is comprised of two separate campaigns, each focusing on one of the main characters.  While Claire and Leon cover much of the same ground in their individual stories, they access most rooms and areas in a different order, gain different weapons, and there are certain important areas that are campaign specific.  In addition, each protagonist interacts with a different set of characters along the way, meaning they each have a fairly unique story. When all of these aspects are taken into account, I feel like each campaign is distinct enough that a second playthrough with a different character doesn’t simply feel like a retread, and it’s worth playing both of them to see the complete story in all its glory.

As a remake, the new Resident Evil 2 is a fairly extensive reenvisioning of the classic.  Much of RCPDHQ will be familiar to returning players, but new key areas and story beats have been added such that the game feels like a new experience while still strongly evoking nostalgia for its forebear.  By far the biggest change is the more modernized camera and combat. Ditching the fixed camera angles and simplistic aiming system of the original for the over-the-shoulder style that became the norm with Resident Evil 4, the new Resident Evil 2 walks a thin line of trying to recapture the elements that made the original resonate with so many players, while also upgrading the game to the standards and expectations of 2019.

Personally, I think it’s very successful.  Initially, I had doubts that the much more precise and agile gameplay would work well with Resident Evil 2’s monster design.  When Resident Evil 4 arrived, the series replaced its iconic zombies with more intelligent and nimble enemies to compensate. Slow, shambling zombies might have been a threat in the earlier games with their clumsier controls and more claustrophobic environments, but it seemed difficult to believe that such monsters could present any sort of danger when headshots could be easily pulled off with true analog stick aiming.  Fortunately, this remake does make them a sufficient challenge through both their herky jerky movements that makes targeting specific body parts more difficult and the fact that they can take a fair bit of ammo to bring down, ammo for which there is a reasonably constrained supply. And of course, zombies aren’t the only monsters that Leon and Claire face off against.

In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X, a mutant supersoldier sent in to clean up witnesses to the outbreak, would stalk the RCPDHQ during whichever character’s campaign the player chose for their second playthrough.  The new remake turns Mr. X into the star of the show, with both Leon and Claire having to contend with him for a fair portion of their individual campaigns. While Mr. X would seemingly appear at random in the original game, the remake greatly expands his role into a persistent and pervasive threat that is always hunting for the player.  

A near unstoppable foe, after his initial appearance, Mr. X’s loud footsteps can always be heard lurking the halls of RCPD.  The flow of the game is radically changed by his presence. It becomes a struggle between cat and mouse. The player must always be listening for his approach, and when he does happen to reach the player, the best strategy is usually to cut and run for safety.  Furthermore, loud noises like gunfire summons him toward the player’s position. No longer can the player calmly take their time to bring down zombies and other monsters with well aimed shots. The threat of Mr. X means the player must more or less always be on the move.

In terms of scare factor, I must admit that, while it has a moody, desperate atmosphere, Resident Evil 2 is not really particularly close to being the scariest action horror game I’ve ever played.  There are definitely some good scares here and there, and Mr. X creates a low boiling tension that always simmers in the back of my mind while playing, but I can think of a few action horror titles that are far better at creating dread and suspense, such as The Evil Within and Dead Space.  To be honest, even the original game wasn’t really super-scary, and it definitely injected what felt to be more of an action movie feel into Resident Evil. With that said, I really enjoy the game for what it is, an excellent horror-themed action game, and would rather not dwell on what its not.

Resident Evil 2 will probably be the highlight of 2019 for me (at least in terms of the world of video games).  It’s super nostalgic while also standing on its own as an entirely new game. To be honest, the game kind of makes me wish they would team Leon and Claire back up again for Resident Evil 8 or something.  They are easily the stand out protagonists of the Resident Evil series to me. And with Resident Evil 7 essentially being another reinvention of the series’ survival horror formula, I can only wonder if the next game will continue what it started or use Resident Evil 2 as its template.  Both are excellent games in my opinion, and it’s incredible to see the series turn itself around after the mess that was Resident Evil 6.  

Phantasmagoria!

Phantasmagoria is a mid-90s horror adventure game from Sierra and the creators of the vaunted King’s Quest series.  At that point in time, adventure games were undergoing a decline, not necessarily due to quality, but due to the growing popularity of action and strategy games on the PC.  In that light, Phantasmagoria feels like an ambitious attempt to establish a new generation of adventure games that would propel the genre into the next century.

I think in my mind, I’ve always seen Phantasmagoria as a grander and more important game than it actually was.  That’s because as a kid I first saw this game when it was featured in a brief segment on the local evening news.  While the game did garner some controversy due to its depiction of violence against women, the segment I saw was actually more of a fluff piece extolling the game’s story and use of digitized human actors.  In my little kid brain, it was clear to me that if an institution as important as the local Fox affiliate had deigned to give Phantasmagoria air time, then it must be a really great game! As an adult, of course, I understand that segments like these are used by news stations as padding for when they don’t have enough real news stories to cover their 30 minute block.  Nonetheless, the praise this game received has been ingrained in my head for two decades since, and I’ve always held Phantasmagoria in high esteem, despite never having played the game.

The lesson here is that you shouldn’t trust what you see on the news.

Phantasmagoria is a horror-themed, story-driven adventure game that follows Adrian Delaney, a semi-popular novelist, and her husband Don, an equally semi-famous photographer who have decided to move to the quiet New England town of Nipawomsett so that Adrian can peacefully work on her next novel.  As hip young affluent weirdos, the couple have decided to make their residence in the abandoned (but surprisingly well-kept) home of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovash, a 19th century magician and serial widower. What could possibly go wrong?

Unsurprisingly, Carno’s seemingly bad luck in love was no mere coincidence, as he was in fact under demonic possession and driven to murder his wives by otherworldy forces.  And while Carno may be long dead, the dark spirit of his madness still lies dormant in the house and finds a long-awaited vessel in Don. This plot really exists somewhere in a spectrum between Stephen King’s The Shining and one of those terrible Lifetime channel movies where the female main characters are more or less tortured by their husbands for 90 commercial-saturated minutes. 

The first chapter of Phantasmagoria starts with Adrian and Don settling into their new home, and the place really is something else.  The peculiarities of this quasi-mansion estate include a giant face sculpted into the side of the building, sphinxes guarding an ominous locked door in the foyer, a live electric chair, a room filled with creepy baby laughter, and a secret chapel hidden behind the library amongst other things.  As someone who recently became involved in the home buying process and came to realize the intense scrutiny it requires, the absurdity of the house leaves me wondering who would ever buy into something like this.  What’s more is that Adrian and Don seem barely cognizant of how bizarre their surroundings are. Early in the story, there are some throwaway comments where they make fun of the builder, but that is the one singular time that I can remember where they express concern over the eccentricities of the house.  Never do they ever seem bothered by the fact that there is a WORKING ELECTRIC CHAIR IN THE GUEST BEDROOM.

Haunted houses work best when they have a modicum of subtlety, otherwise the audience will struggle with suspension of disbelief.  Characters that choose to live in a place that is overtly unnatural or dangerous just aren’t that believable, especially when those characters are people of means like Adrian and Don who could easily afford to live wherever they want.  But to be fair, in the starting chapter where the player gets to explore the house for the first time, the house did manage to capture my imagination even if it clashed with my incredulity. “Hmm, I wonder what’s waiting behind this scary door guarded by sphinxes,” I said to myself.  “I can’t wait to see how the story uses the electric chair,” I thought. As stupidly overt as the house is, it sets up curiosity for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when compared to these expectations, the rest of the game up to the climax feels rather uneventful.

Phantasmagoria is a seven chapter ordeal.  At the end of the first chapter, Don becomes possessed after Adrian unseals the demon that’s been trapped in the house, and it feels like the story is about to take off, but then………..well not much really happens.  Adrian spends the following chapters somewhat aimlessly poking around town and the house, as Don becomes more aggressive and abusive toward her. It’s hard to articulate how empty the plot of Phantasmagoria can be at times.  Adrian’s motivations are often unclear, and she is seemingly oblivious to the growing danger in her own marriage. Most chapters involve her exploring a new area of the estate, and unlocking little snippets of Carno and his victims’ story.  The problem is that Carno’s story really isn’t that interesting. It’s the very cliche story of a stage magician whose lust for true magic leads him to becoming the thrall of dark forces.

……And then there’s Harriet and Cyrus.  A not insignificant chunk of this game is taken up by a bizarre subplot where Adrian discovers a homeless mother and son living in her barn, who she promptly puts to work doing household chores and lawn work.  The questionable undertones of this story element aside, these characters do very little to advance the core plot of Don’s descent into madness or play into the horror that is supposed to be the game’s core. They simply serve to be emblematic of the padding that fills out this game.

While Phantasmagoria aspires to be a grand horror game, there’s not a lot of scares to be had in the first six chapters.  Although Don is slowly becoming more and more of a dick, Adrian is never in any real danger. The scares come at specific points in the story when Adrian has visions of the various ways in which Carno murdered his wives.  The scenes are pretty gruesome and really exist more for shock value than to develop true suspense and tension. As you can tell from the screenshots, Phantasmagoria uses digitized footage of live actors, and when the game was released, it came under a fair bit of controversy for its depiction of violence against women.  The whole affair reeks of 90’s schlock. There’s even a painful to watch sex scene midway that crosses the line into rape and just feels incredibly tone deaf compared to the rest of the game.

Outside of the story, the game is sprinkled with light adventure game puzzle solving.  It’s standard adventure game fare: find items to get other items to clear obstacles that are in the path of your progress.  The puzzles are actually surprisingly easy. At the point in time when this game was released, adventure games were starting to come under fire for the obtuse and absurd logic they required, with Sierra, the company behind this title, being one of the largest targets.  Phantasmagoria is incredibly easy when compared to this standard as a result of taking this criticism to heart and wanting to focus more on the story.

The final chapter of Phantasmagoria is a major departure from its preceedings.  The game’s climax turns into more of an interactive movie with Don finally breaking down into a murderous rampage.  In an extended chase sequence, Adrian must evade Don while finding a safe path out of the house. This segment is very trial and error in nature:  go down the wrong hallway or into the wrong room and Don will meet Adrian with a gruesome death. This is the part of the game where it best approaches proper horror, and yet it still doesn’t quite reach its goals.  As a deranged killer, Don, himself, is more cartoonish than threatening, and once again the game falls back on its primary means of achieving horror which is to simply use cheap, gratuitous blood and gore for shock value, although I will admit the practical special effects used in these scenes is quite impressive.

Horror is fairly relative, especially in the context of time.  I’m left wondering if I had experienced this game for the first time as a kid in the 90s, would I find it scary?  Maybe I would and maybe I’m just too old and desensitized now to get any chills from cheap gore. Certainly, the game reviewed and sold well upon its release.  On the other hand, time and age may account for the scares falling flat, but it doesn’t excuse the story for feeling underdeveloped.

Phantasmagoria was a late in life product of Sierra, known for many classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest.  I have honestly never played a Sierra adventure game other than this one, so I can’t say if its representative of the company’s typical quality or not.  Reading the history of this game, it’s clear the team went into this project with a lot of ambition, but became ensnared in practical constraints such as time, budget, and early 90s technology.  For its time, Phantasmagoria was an unparalleled production, and I can respect the work and aspiration that went into this game even if I think it has aged poorly.

Dusk!

Dusk is badass.  I don’t know of any other way to start talking about this game other than to just get that out there.  Dusk is a first-person action game that is more similar to Quake than to the story and spectacle heavy FPS games that come out today.  This is immediately apparent when you first get a look at its grungy, low-poly visuals. But beyond the superficial, Dusk perfectly encapsulates what made those early first person action games so much fun, and, in a lot of ways, it exceeds those inspirations.  That said, it might seem like a strange choice for a Halloween game, but I was personally surprised to discover that it was one of the most gruesome and disturbing experiences I’ve played in a while.

Dusk begins in media res with the player character waking up as an unwilling cult sacrifice in the basement of a farmhouse guarded by hooded men wielding chainsaws.  After managing to escape captivity, the player emerges into a quiet countryside where monsters and cultists lurk in every dark corner. Eventually, the player reaches the government-quarantined town of Dusk, deep beneath which a secretive archaeological site has unleashed cosmic horror upon the world.  The player’s ultimate goal becomes traverse a strange parallel dimension that spawned the twisted alien abominations that are assaulting the very fabric of Earth’s reality.

Dusk doesn’t have much overt storytelling.  The motives of the mute main character are never explained in-game.  There are no cutscenes and no other friendly characters with which to interact.  The cult leader will occasionally telepathically taunt the player, but there’s no one to instruct the player on specifically what they should be doing which contrasts with the majority of action games released today.  Storytelling is really more environmental in nature. The player learns about the world of Dusk via the places and things they witness along their journey.

I think the low-level storytelling is a key part of Dusk’s appeal.  Modern video games, especially big budget ones, tend to have a preoccupation with making sure the player always understands exactly what is happening and what they should be doing.  As a result, they often tend to get bogged down with cutscenes, radio conversations, tutorials, setpieces, etc. Dusk, on the other hand, just lets the player run loose. As I have limited free time for games these days, the fact that Dusk just cuts straight to the fun stuff is incredibly refreshing.

The key to this is in how incredibly well-designed Dusk’s levels are.  They tend to be highly non-linear, offering the player multiple paths and directions to explore at any given moment.  Stages like these could falter by becoming too confusing or maze-like, too easy for the player to get lost, but I never really had this issue with Dusk.  It is complex without being confusing. Each area feels distinctive and memorable, which makes it easy to find one’s way around. I really enjoyed exploring this game, discovering what oddities and horrific sights lay around every corner, unlocking the vast number of secrets the game hides, and getting hooked on the adrenaline rush that each enemy ambush brought.  

With 33 levels divided across 3 episodes, I was a bit worried that the game would start to get repetitive.  Fortunately, the game has a ton of imagination packed into its sweeping journey. What starts off as a struggle for survival in a dark countryside filled with cultists and killers eventually morphs into a trek through secretive high-tech facilities harboring strange and unrestrained experiments and eventually across the warped landscapes of cosmic abomination.  With each loading screen to usher in a new chapter, I always felt on the edge of something strange and surprising.  

As an action game, Dusk is a lightfooted run-and-gun.  Like Serious Sam or Quake, the player has gotta always be moving, less they become an easy target.  There is a good variety of weapons, and the enemies are designed in such a way that makes most of the weapons fairly useful to the player.  In a lot of Dusk’s classic counterparts, I usually found myself defaulting to using only one or two weapons that were clearly the most powerful, and only grudgingly using the lesser ones when I was out of ammo for the favorites.  Dusk, on the other hand, does a good job of designing different situations that uniquely suit particular weapons, thus giving the player fairly frequent reason to mix things up and not simply rely on the shotgun or rocket launcher.

Despite the fact that Dusk is a fairly kinetic and aggressive action game, I was impressed by how well the developers were able to infuse it with the atmosphere and tension of a horror game.  You wouldn’t necessarily think that an action game where the player is routinely outgunning dozens of enemies at a time could be scary, but Dusk can often be truly suspenseful. There were a ton of times when I was getting goosebumps because I knew a disturbing reveal was being ominously teased.  The game oozes atmosphere, and I thought it was great at psyching me out. One of my favorite levels features the player descending downward through a cave that leads deep into the Earth. As the cave got narrower and more tortuous, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about what I would find at the end of the long, downward spiraling tunnel.  Something that really helps is the grungy, low-poly graphics which go beyond being a sentimental call back to classic games and provide a level of abstraction, aliennes, and crudeness that greatly enhance the murky and unsettling nature of Dusk’s world. Simply put, the game does an amazing job at balancing the power fantasy of taking on huge hordes of enemies with a feeling of vulnerability toward the hidden threats that lie in wait for the player.


Dusk is a quintessential example of a nostalgia trip done right.  It doesn’t merely exist as a desperate attempt to recapture the fond memories of the past.  Rather, it understands the elements that made those classics so great, elements which are often discarded or downplayed in modern game design, and then it enhances and advances those elements with its own ideas in a way that exceeds its inspirations.  I honestly have no hesitation in saying that Dusk truly outdoes many of the action games that it seeks to honor.

The Life and Death of Vita

Earlier this month, news broke that Sony was finally discontinuing production of the Vita.  This got me thinking a lot about the machine. Considering my enthusiasm for handheld gaming, I’ve always viewed the Vita a bit regretfully.  As a platform, it never really sparked much passion in me. It’s an amazing piece of hardware: a big colorful screen, a nice d-pad and buttons, very ergonomic compared to other handhelds, and, of course, it has two analog sticks, an addition that its predecessor sorely needed.  As a machine, it’s also just very slick looking from an aesthetic standpoint. In comparison, I’ve always thought the various versions of the 3DS looked very toy-like, especially considering the classy, minimalist shapes of the DS Lite and DSi. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I always feel a bit more self-conscious when other adults see me playing a 3DS than I do when I’m playing a Vita.

Severed was an incredibly unique dungeon crawler designed specifically for the Vita.

The problem that I’ve always had with the Vita is the games.  On the one hand, it’s unfair and inaccurate to say that the Vita doesn’t have a decently-sized library of games.  The problem is it doesn’t have a lot of games unique to the system. Sony put a lot of effort into supporting the PSP with great games.  They developed new series like LocoRoco and Patapon, and they had great entries of their other big series on the machine, like Killzone, Syphon Filter, Resistance, MotorStorm, and Little Big Planet.  The big video game publishers in Japan were also big supporters of the PSP, but that support didn’t materialize the same way for the Vita. Square-Enix, for instance, launched huge titles for the PSP like Final Fantasy Type-0, The Third Birthday, and Crisis Core, but the only major game for the Vita from them that I can think of was the FFX/FFX-2 collection.  

It seems like most of these publishers very early on decided that mobile and 3DS were simply better investments.  The worst loss for the Vita was when Capcom decided to move the Monster Hunter series from PSP to 3DS, instead of Vita.  Monster Hunter was a hugely successful series in Japan and was the driving force behind the PSP’s long-tail popularity over there.  Worst of all, Sony, themselves, gave up on making games for the Vita pretty quickly. Going by Wikipedia, the last major release from them seems to have come out and 2013.

Yomawari Night Alone was a surprisingly unusual horror game for Vita.

Regardless, the Vita still managed to cultivate a fair number of games for itself.  The Vita library was heavily filled out with indie games. I like indie games, and I play a ton of them, but I was never really drawn to play these games on the Vita.  This was mainly, I think, for two reasons. First, these games often released long after their original release on either Steam or PS4, and I had often already played them on these other platforms by the time they came to Vita.  There were a few times when I made a conscious effort to wait for the Vita release of a specific game, but this frequently ended in the Vita version being cancelled or the wait ending up being so long that I just lost interest. The second issue I had with these games was that they were often markedly inferior versions, either running poorly on the Vita or simply not being scaled correctly to the handheld’s screen size and resolution.  Stuff like uncomfortably tiny text or fuzzy image quality were recurring flaws in these ports.

Gravity Rush was an original title created for Vita. Unfortunately, the sequel was PS4-only.

I know that in addition to indie games, there was also a large contingent of Japanese visual novels released for the system.  And while I recognize there is a niche for these sorts of games, the genre doesn’t really appeal to me outside of a few of the higher profile games like Danganronpa or Steins;Gate.

I know that I’m not alone in feeling, simply but sadly, that the glory days of handheld gaming are long behind us.  The Vita didn’t really come close to living up to the PSP, and while the 3DS faired better, it’s library wasn’t quite as expansive and vibrant as the DS before it.  Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of great games for the 3DS, but they were mostly from Nintendo, while other game makers provided much less support. Almost certainly, a combination of mobile phone gaming and the extensive piracy on both the PSP and DS has lured support away from dedicated handhelds.  From that perspective, I think the Switch is probably a very smartly formulated device, as it keeps Nintendo’s handheld legacy alive, while also being a platform that attracts console game makers.

All of this said, I’m not really in a rush to bury my Vita in a drawer and forget about it.  The recent production news has really been a reminder to me that there’s still a handful of games that I want to go back and play.  Particularly, the higher profile visual novels, namely Danganronpa, Steins;Gate, and Virtue’s Last Reward. I also recently became interested in playing Death Mark, a more obscure title from last fall.  Perhaps it will be a Halloween game this year. Beyond that, I think the machine is still the best way of playing PS1 and PSP games. It’s too bad that most of my PSP collection is on UMD and not PSN, or else I could probably permanently retire my PSP.

The Crash Comeback: Part 3

Over a year ago when I excitedly picked up the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, I had an immense amount of enthusiasm  to replay these games. I’ve been a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot for a long time, and the reviews for the remake were absolutely glowing.  With that in mind, I thought to myself, “How can I possibly end up disappointed?” Reality set in when I made it to The Road to Nowhere level in the first entry of the series.  I found it to be insanely difficult and frustrating. I never remembered Crash 1 ever being so hard, and it took me almost 2 hours to beat this particular level. I don’t think any other stage in the remainder of the game was quite that challenging, but I felt the game as a whole awkwardly oscillated between deflatingly easy and acutely demanding.  In the end, I’m still a fan of Crash 1, but my fondness has definitely been tempered quite a bit.

Regardless of my issues, I moved on to Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back with quite a bit of optimism.  I’ve found that many hail this sequel as the high point of the original trilogy of Crash Bandicoot games, much like its cinematic namesake. For me, while I personally owned and played Crash 1 and 3 to death, Crash 2 was only an occasional rental.  When I was younger, I tended to avoid buying (or requesting as gifts) games that were available at the local video store to rent, unless if it was just a game that was simply too big to not own. (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, any Mario game are all good examples of what I mean by “too big to not own” games.)  As a consequence, I’ve never had any strong feelings toward Crash 2, for better or for worse.

Turns out, after all these years, I hate this game.

I’ve had to ponder for a bit on why I find the game to be such an unpleasant chore, and I feel that my reasons are twofold.  The main reason is that the game is often unnecessarily frustrating. I often enjoy difficult games, but there is a difference between a well-designed challenge and the tedium and nuisance of clumsy game design.  Take Bloodborne, for instance. There are many times when the player encounters a new boss that initially seems utterly insurmountable. But with persistence and practice, the player’s skills and understanding eventually become honed to the point that enemies and areas that originally seemed impossible become quite easy.  It’s an immensely satisfying feeling when I realize this happens. With games like Crash 2, on the other hand, the challenge doesn’t seem to arise from a deficit in skill or experience, rather it seems to come from the player bumping into aspects of the game that aren’t particularly well thought out or refined.

Take for instance the camera, over which the player has no control over in these original Crash Bandicoot games.  I argued before when discussing Crash 1 that the inability to freely manipulate the camera often results in the player having difficulty understanding Crash’s position in three-dimensional space.  The screenshot below is a good example of this issue. In this image, consider that Crash is moving into the screen while the enemies hover mid-air, traveling in square pathways. It was essentially a guessing game for me to understand how close they were to Crash along the axis that runs into the screen.  This of course makes it quite difficult to avoid contact. This issue was bad in Crash 1, but is particularly a problem in Crash 2 where a lot of the later levels involve Crash flying through space with a rocket pack strapped to his back. With no ground beneath him for reference, it became really difficult for me to gauge how close Crash was to any of the enemies or hazards.  

Another problem I had with the game that ties into this complaint is that sometimes very basic obstacles require an uncomfortable amount of precision to overcome.  For instance, there are a fair few pits in the game that felt like I needed to wait for Crash to be upon the very edge before jumping across, or else he would fall just short of the landing on the opposite side.  Often, the game reminds me of the slew of mediocre NES games that I rented as a kid which demanded the player make pixel precise movements and, as a result, felt sloppily designed when compared to something like Mario or…….well, Mario.

Before I go further, I want to make a point of not over-exaggerating the difficulty of Crash 2.  While it was frequently frustrating, it was not nearly as hard as my recent playthrough of Crash 1, wherein there were a few levels in which I got bogged down in for hours.  But beyond the clumsy difficulty curve, I find Crash 2 simply didn’t resonate with me as much as Crash 1. The immediately obvious culprit for these feelings is that I have a sentimental attachment to Crash 1, but not to Crash 2.  While this may be the case, after a fair amount of reflection, I think there are a few truly rational justifications for why I was let down by this sequel, but still retain a modicum of fondness for its predecessor. The main issue I think is that this game tends to have a lot of levels built around tedious gimmicks.  The aforementioned rocket pack levels are an offender. It’s also worth mentioning the dark levels that involve Crash having to speed his way through before the light provided by an accompanying firefly fades out. There’s also a certain level that involves soft dirt that Crash can burrow beneath. The burrowing is supposed to help him hide from swarms of bees that periodically give chase, but since these bees can be killed with the spin attack, I never really understood why I would intentionally want to burrow into the dirt.

Then there’s the ice levels.  Oh the ice levels.  I’m not sure I’ve ever really liked slippery ice levels in any game.  At best, they are merely tolerable. Crash 2 has probably the most painfully laborious ice levels I’ve ever played.  The issue here is that it takes forever for Crash to gain traction and pick up speed in any direction while on ice.  Since the player needs to frequently stop to prevent Crash from sliding out of control in any direction, then has to wait for Crash to pick up even a modicum of momentum again, it’s a tiresome ordeal.

I recognize that complaining about gimmicks is an odd complaint to level against Crash 2, but not its predecessor, especially as some of the gimmickiest levels of Crash 1 have become its most iconic.  Afterall, the hog riding and boulder escape levels are some of the original game’s most recognizable stages. But these stages provided a fun and exciting diversion from the standard way the game is played.  The ideas they came up with for Crash 2 just felt like chores to me. They are challenge by constriction of the player (no light, no traction, etc.), and don’t really add an interesting new dimension of play.

Finally, there’s the ending, which I felt was utterly anti-climactic.  It’s a quick fight with Neo Cortex, and then the game is just sort of over after a quick cutscene showing Crash and Coco are okay.  It’s also a rocket pack stage, which I’ve mentioned I’m not fond toward. The reality is that there’s a secret ending, which I assume is significantly more elaborate.  As I understand, access to this ending requires the player to break every wooden crate in each level. That is a high-level feat that requires a fair bit of mastery and practice to pull off, and I simply didn’t enjoy the game enough to even attempt it.  I appreciate secret endings that encourage high-level play, but as I discussed in my Hollow Knight post, it’s far less than ideal if the normal ending that most players will see is neglected as a result.

I know that this post has really just been one big long rant.  I rarely rant in blog form or write too negatively about games, simply because if I dislike a game, I generally don’t take the time to finish it, much less find the energy to devote to writing about it.  But I committed myself to reexperiencing and writing about the Crash Bandicoot trilogy after the PS4 collection came out, and so here I am. Furthermore, I’ve come to the impression that Crash 2 is generally the most well-regarded of the original trilogy.  So, I’m fully aware that many reading this may disagree with me. That’s fine. This post merely represents my personal feelings and thoughts, and I certainly don’t harbor the delusion that I’m any sort of definitive arbiter of gaming quality.

With all of this behind me, I’m now facing the final game in the trilogy, Crash Bandicoot: Warped.  Of the three original entries in the series, this is the one I have the most sentimental attachment toward with probably the most hours of my youth sunk.  In a strange way, I feel suspense building inside me. Crash 1 ended up being less amazing than I remember, and my experience with Crash 2 was mediocre. I feel a dark thought nagging at the edge of my consciousness:  “Maybe the Crash Bandicoot series was never really all that great.” The moment of truth will soon be at hand, as it is now up to the Crash Bandicoot: Warped to dispel that notion.

QUBE 2!

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I love puzzle games, but that hasn’t always been the case.  When I was much younger, the term “puzzle game” was more synonymous with falling block games, that is to say games that relied on the old Tetris formula in which the player’s goal is to arrange pieces of junk falling from the sky according to some idiosyncratic rule that causes the mess to disappear.  I really liked Tetris, but I also got it for free with my Game Boy. It simply never crossed my mind to use the limited opportunities that a youngster has to get new video games on the numerous clones of Tetris that proliferated after its breakout success. Those types of games simply didn’t offer enough content in comparison to the action-adventure games that I usually picked up.

Somewhere along the line all that changed.  The “puzzle game” term was commandeered by a different game and its numerous clones.  That game, of course, was Portal, and it completely reinvigorated what had become an utterly sleepy genre.  The term suddenly was used less to describe games about the strategy and reflexes of arranging falling blocks, and more to describe games in which the player sets about solving puzzles built into the environment of the levels they are meant to explore.  And after Portal, there was a boom in indie groups taking advantage of new digital storefronts to release new games in the genre. One game that often stands out in my mind as emblematic of this boom time was QUBE, a game that could easily be described as a Portal clone, although a good game nonetheless, worth the time of anyone interested in such games.  QUBE sort of came and went, and it seemed like it didn’t quite make the same lasting impression as some of the other big name puzzle games of the time, which is why I was happy when a sequel, QUBE 2, was released earlier this year.

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QUBE 2, like the game before it, is set inside a massive structure made of white cubes, ominously implied to be of alien origin.  During the beginnings steps of the story, the player discovers and equips a strange, technologically-advanced glove that allows them to manipulate the properties of the cubic building blocks of the surroundings.  This is the primary means through which the player interacts with the environment. The glove can confer functionality to specific cubes with each functionality having a specific color coding. Red cubes expand outward, laterally from the surface in which they are embedded, to create steps or possibly obstructions.  Blue cubes act like “ejectors”, forcefully expelling the player or any other objects that touch their surfaces in the opposite direction. Finally, green cubes become detached from the structure, creating a moveable object that can be used, for instance, to weigh down switches or act as stepping stones.

These are the only glove functions that are introduced to the player.  With such a limited number of ways to manipulate individual blocks, I was initially worried that QUBE 2 might be too simplistic mechanically for a large variety of complex puzzles.  Ultimately, however, I found that the game had a good ramp in terms of difficulty and complexity. While the player may only have three “powers”, the game continually introduces new elements and features to the environment that keep the basic formula of the puzzles from stagnating.  And while I felt the game started off maybe too easy, the puzzles progress through a fair difficulty curve, and I think the puzzle design offered a very satisfying challenge without ever becoming unreasonably obtuse.

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The first QUBE was completely devoid of story, and that’s not an exaggeration.  As far as I can recall, the main character never spoke, was spoken too, or encountered other characters.  He/she/it simply moved through the cube structures solving puzzles to progress. I think the game may have been criticized a bit unfairly for this, as the closest point of comparison most people have for this game is Portal, and many people play Portal for the story first, puzzles second.  Eventually, a “director’s cut” version of the game was released that included new story elements, but I’ve never gone back to play this version, so I can provide no comment on it.

I can say, however, that QUBE 2 puts a fair bit of effort into its story from the get go.  The player takes control of Amelia Cross, a woman who awakens on a desolated planet that has been overtaken by the eponymous alien cubes which have self-assembled into enormous structures that dot the world’s surface.  Taking refuge in one of these structures, Amelia begins to explore its inner workings and sets about uncovering the true nature of the cubes and their potential as friend or foe to humankind. The story is metered out in the “radio play” style with all interactions between Amelia and the other characters being carried out over radio transmissions as the player goes about their business.  I thought the actual plot that unfolds was merely decent. It’s not bad by any means, but for people who have read or watched a lot of science fiction, it will probably be easy to figure out where the story is heading. But as predictable as it may be, the story doesn’t really get in the way of the overall adventure, and I felt it gave some coloring to the experience that increased immersion, meaning I don’t feel that it was a purely perfunctory element of the game.  But it’s important to understand that for the kind of person who plays Portal for the story and jokes and doesn’t really care about the challenge of puzzle solving, this game probably won’t be particularly engaging.

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Speaking of immersion, I thought QUBE 2 was visually stunning in its own humble way.  I feel like that’s kind of a weird thing to say about a game where the player spends their time exploring environments entirely made out of white cubes.  But the image quality is really sharp, and lighting is used well to create texture and dynamism in the world. Later on in the game, bits of nature and greenery begin to encroach on the otherwise sterile environments, adding a small bit of satisfying diversity.  There’s not a huge amount of variety to the setting, but I never felt bored or tired of the aesthetic, which is not something I can say of the first QUBE.

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QUBE 2 is interesting because its predecessor is so quaint in comparison.  QUBE was a simple $15 puzzle game released in the wake of Portal’s popularity.  It was a cool game, but I never really thought the core concept could carry more than one title in a series.  The team behind this game apparently had a completely different idea, however, and really doubled down on what they had.  With QUBE 2, they took their humble indie game and blew it up into a significantly more expansive and polished product. QUBE 2 has more extensive content, slicker visuals, and a significantly more substantial story.  I find it to be the often too rare kind of sequel that stands completely on its own, and in no way requires experience with the prior game in the series to fully enjoy. Personally, I often tend to be compulsively driven to play games sequentially in a series (i.e., I can’t play sequels until I play their predecessors).  But with QUBE 2, I have no hesitance about recommending newcomers start here, and only tackle the original game if they are left wanting more.

The Inpatient!

 

The Inpatient Flat.pngThe Inpatient is the latest PSVR spinoff from PS4’s excellent (non-VR) horror adventure game Until Dawn.  Unlike Until Dawn’s first spinoff, Rush of Blood, which was was an arcade action game more akin to The House of the Dead than the original Until Dawn, The Inpatient goes back to the series’ roots and focuses on story, dialogue, and exploration with scant action.  In The Inpatient, the player takes on the point of view of an unnamed amnesiac patient at Blackwood Sanatorium in the winter of 1952. I don’t want to spoil Until Dawn, so I’ll be speaking a bit vaguely here, but the events that transpire at the asylum during this time period play a major part in the lore of the series and are described in detail during the original game.  Thus, The Inpatient seeks to give a new perspective on the series’ backstory and serves as a sort of prequel.

I’m going to be blunt and upfront here: as a huge fan of Until Dawn (and also PSVR), The Inpatient was a big disappointment.  While Rush of Blood was an arcade shooting gallery that hugely deviated from the carefully-paced, story-focused trappings of its predecessor, I still think its a better continuation of Until Dawn than The Inpatient.  Rush of Blood had interesting and varied environments, a ton of cool monster designs, and despite a few irritating jump scares, was a more moody and frightful experience. The Inpatient, despite launching at double the price of Rush of Blood, feels like a low budget project, in contrast.  It’s an incredibly stripped down experience with few actual scares and a story that is dull and insubstantial.

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As a patient at Blackwood, the player spends roughly the first half of the game almost entirely confined to their room at the asylum.  Early on, a new roommate is introduced, and most of the time is spent having conversations with him. Unfortunately, he’s not a terribly interesting character, and I found all of these conversations rather unmemorable.  Eventually, alarms go off and chaos ensues offscreen, after which the main character and this roommate are left abandoned for days. Those who have played Until Dawn will probably immediately realize what has happened, but I can imagine those who are unfamiliar with the series will be completely confused.

During this segment, the player occasionally rests, only to enter a dream sequence where the player is left to wander the long dark hallways of the asylum as mildly spooky stuff happens along the way.  And when I say mildly spooky, I mean it. It feels like a really cheap haunted house. The worst scare of the game happens in the very first dream sequence when something randomly appears in front of the player, screams in their face, and then disappears.  Cheap jump scares like this are questionable design in normal games, but as I wrote about in my Rush of Blood review, they are extremely uncomfortable in VR.  This one was so bad that I actually reflexively ripped off the PSVR headset.  Strangely, this was the only jump scare I encountered during my entire playthrough, but the experience left me anxious (in a bad way) for the rest of the game.  I found every other attempt the game made to scare me to be rather tepid.

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After a long boring period stuck in the room with Mr. Personality, the main character escapes their cell by way of…..something.  As far as I could tell, the story doesn’t even really attempt to give a real explanation as to how the main character gets out of the locked room, but nonetheless the player eventually finds themselves freely roaming the halls after they escape in a surreal dream sequence.  After the slow and lackluster first half of the game, one might be hopeful that it was merely building up to a more exciting escape from the grounds of the asylum, itself. Not so, however, as I felt the back half of the game was even more unfulfilling than the first.

After a bit of aimless wandering, the player meets up with a group of survivors who promise to take him/her back to a safe haven.  At this point in the story, the asylum should be overrun with bloodthirsty creatures, but the player only has one brief encounter with a monster.  The player basically spends the rest of the story following the other survivors through empty hallways and corridors while little else happens.

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Toward the end, some (human) violence breaks out, and I could only assume this was an attempt to try to create some excitement for the climax, but I felt it completely fell flat at creating any tension or raising my interest in the story.  The ending, itself, felt extremely anticlimactic. The Inpatient has multiple endings which are the outcomes of various dialogue choices the player can make, but I don’t feel the game grabbed me enough for me to give it another playthrough.

Even for superfans of the original Until Dawn, I don’t think The Inpatient is a necessary experience.  It’s story simply doesn’t stand on its own, and it doesn’t really meaningfully advance the Until Dawn lore.  The outbreak at Blackwood could have been a terrifying event to witness, but everything exciting happens off-screen, far away from the player’s view.  This is presumably the end of Until Dawn as a series, and it’s really too bad that it ends on such a whimper.

Stories Untold!

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Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes tinged with horror and modelled after classic sci-fi anthology series such as The Outer Limits and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.  Each vignette is superficially a standalone experience with the commonality that they each feature stories in which the player interacts with an array of (by today’s standards) vintage electronics such as classic microcomputers, microfiche archives, radios, televisions, etc.  The exception is the final episode which manages to tie together the seemingly unrelated events of the preceding chapters into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

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Of the four episodes, I felt the first was easily the strongest.  It’s also the only episode that I felt leant deeply into the horror genre.  In this chapter, the player is rooted at a home desk with a “Futuro” microcomputer, which is essentially a fictionalized analogue of machines like the Amiga and Commodore 64.  Loaded up onto the system is The House Abandon, a text adventure that is essentially a game within a game. The entire episode is spent at this desk playing this one text adventure game.  The House Abandon begins as a seemingly warm and fuzzy story about returning to a childhood home, but eventually reveals itself to have a more sinister side. All of a sudden, the game turns a dark corner and begins distorting the in-game reality surrounding the microcomputer.  While this might sound gimmicky and a little cheesy, I found it to be executed surprisingly well. The metafictional interplay between the reality of the humble desk and Futuro computer setup and the dark residential setting of The House Abandon is one of the most creative mechanisms of producing tension and foreboding that I’ve seen in a game, and the creepiness of the experience left a distinct impression on me.

The subsequent episodes, however, were not quite as effective in creating the atmosphere and mood befitting a horror game.  The second and third episodes are more sci-fi oriented. Instead of a cursed computer game, the second episode involves the player operating lab equipment in a government research facility, and the third episode takes place in a radio outpost for an expedition above the Arctic Circle.  Horror is subjective, of course, and while I could see how someone might consider these chapters to be eerie, I simply did not come away with that impression.

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The fourth episode diverges significantly from the rest and serves as a capstone for the disparate stories that came before it.  A more grounded tale, eschewing supernatural and sci-fi elements, the final chapter is, in a certain way, the most chilling episode and deals with tragedy and deeply personal torment.  Not scary in the traditional sense of the oft-surreal horror genre, Stories Untold concludes with an upsetting story of loss and regret, real world horror if you will.  Beyond that, the fourth episode manages to color the entire experience with an interesting perspective that attempts to elevate the game above the sum of its parts.  The blurring of boundaries between layers of metafictional reality is a theme that permeates throughout, and this peculiar aspect of the individual vignettes serves as an important hook for the conclusion.

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Surprisingly, the text adventure aspect manages to find its way into the story beyond the initial episodes.  Of the actual interactive parts of the game, I found these segments to be the most enjoyable and interesting.  Text adventures have a bad reputation of obtuseness due to how frustrating it can sometimes be to figure out the right wording of commands to enter into the text parser, but I didn’t find Stories Untold to be too much of a hassle in this regard.  The other various tasks the player is given, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like busy work to fill in time between story beats. One part of the game has the player manipulating the various buttons, knobs, and levers of a microfiche display, and this activity was especially tedious.

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Ultimately, I have no strong feelings toward Stories Untold.  I can easily see that it’s competently designed with a well crafted story, but I simply did not resonate sharply with this game.  I chose this as a Halloween game after seeing it on a number of horror game recommendation lists, but, honestly, I personally have a hard time characterizing it as such.  The first episode featuring the cursed computer game was a great experience, but the remainder of the game felt like a different direction tonally. To me, the hook of the game is more for those interested in ‘80s nostalgia than it is for enthusiasts of the horror genre.  (Which is ironic, because I felt that one of the main themes of the game was that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that deters us from facing reality.) As a ‘90s kid, I have little attachment to this subject matter, which is probably why the game didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me.

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